“People jump at the chance to make their jobs meaningful,” writes Barry Schwartz in “Rethinking Work,” appearing in today’s New York Times Sunday Review.
The money doesn’t really matter as much as the meaning – which we see even in the most menial jobs. He cites the hospital janitor whose reason for getting out of bed each morning was the joy he could bring to patients as he went about his work.
It’s a first-world problem to complain about our work. To complain at all. We have the luxury of idle time and pondering to fill hours cushioned by privilege. And it has led us to be ungrateful.
When I was a teen, I imagined adult life to be one endless canvas of freedom. I could do anything, simply anything. I could go anywhere, be a myriad of different personalities over the course of my life.
I could fall in love, fall out of love, fall back in again and devote my life to lazy Sunday mornings, slow sex with someone who excited me years after we first met, children I would raise with the loving touch of someone with infinite patience.
And the work. The work would unfold, year after year. I would write for magazines and newspapers, (we couldn’t imagine blogs or websites back then) and my words would matter, would make a difference, would help people along their own paths.
In short, the words would lead me to the meaning. They would shape the meaning and shape me as I crafted sentences and while the pay would be low, I would love what I did because it was my passion.
My passion has always been the story. What moves you, what moves me, why we go where we go and choose the people we choose.
Somewhere along the way, though, the passion gave way to the paycheck, and my focus shifted from doing work that I love to making sure I have enough to stay alive.
I never was under threat of not making it, though my deepest insecurities led me to fear that very threat. And so the work changed because I wasn’t doing it from the heart. I was doing it out of need, want, and a desire to stay afloat.
And a desire to gain approval, to matter, to be told by people outside of me that I am good, talented, successful.
That has to stop.
There will always be work in our lives. It is the basic course of humans. We work to keep contributing during our lifetimes and sometimes the work is immense, under a mountain of demands and obligations and we collect hefty paychecks and pay big bills and repeat the cycle daily.
Now in my 40s, I imagine my retirement years the way as a teen I imagined this time of my life, and it looks as ideal as the visions back then.
Somehow I believe there will come a time when the race will slow to a leisurely stroll and I will be able to slow my pace as well. The work then always looks to me like helping others – serving coffee in a cafe, sitting with the elderly, volunteering in a preschool.
There are always people involved, old and young, people who need my guidance from years of experience and living, and I will have the patience (finally) to mentor, to give, to write for the sake of writing and not for the paycheck.
Who knows if it will really be like that. It makes no sense to look ahead, you know. There is only right now.
When I was a new college graduate living and working in New York City and making pennies at a trade newspaper, I had the peace of mind that comes with seeing life as an adventure. When I earned less, I felt that I had more.
The higher the pay scale tips, the more the anxiety, fear and trepidation increase, too.
Back then, it was about waking in the dawn and knowing that the day had something to offer – something to discover. Every step, every challenge, every interaction with a coworker or superior, was something to experience, good or bad, for better and for worse.
In the Pirkei Avot chapters that I studied with my friend today, one of the Sages said people should love their work, not fall in love with power, and be careful about getting too chummy with government officials. Love our work. That is our mandate, our mission.
This morning, a plumber who helped me in my old house whenever the pipes clogged came to the new house to release a clog in the kitchen sink. “Oh yes, I remember you,” he said in his Israeli accent. “Nice new house. How are the kids?”
For a Sunday morning house call, the bill was only $150. We were happy to pay it, and he was happy to receive it. The flow of exchange, the energy of doing work that you are called to do, to help people release the kinks into the flow that we all need to live a good life, every day.